M. R. Montgomery, Jefferson and the Gun-Men: How the West Was Almost Lost (Crown, 2000)
[originally posted 19Sep2000]
There is a common misconception among readers that history is dry stuff. Dates are to be memorized for tests, names blend together, and it’s all forgotten at the end of the term. This misconception has a lot to do with history textbooks, which often are lists of names and dates, but it can also be traced to non-academic history books. Let’s face it, the majority of history researchers are more comfortable finding facts than relating them. That’s why coming upon an author like Montgomery is as refreshing as it is; he can spin a tale.
The tale he spins in Jefferson and the Gun-Men has all the angles. Burr kills Hamilton in a duel. Jefferson plots to get land away from the Indians. Lewis and Clark explore the Rockies. Zebulon Pike wanders into Spanish territory. Burr attempts to foment a war with Spain. All of this could be compiled into a list of dates and names. Instead, Montgomery’s aim is to present it to us with enough connective tissue to turn it into an actual narrative, despite something of a paucity of documents relating to pieces of the story.
It’s interesting that both Montgomery’s main strength and his main weakness lie in his enthusiasm. Why this is a strength should be obvious. He has produced a book on a section of American history oddly overlooked by many historians. (Overlooked, perhaps, because of the dearth of information mentioned above.) It is well-paced, readable, easy to understand. Most of all, it is absorbing. While Montgomery never quite proves that there was a conspiracy, as the book jacket alleges, that may not have been his goal. He gives the reader the facts and allows him to decide for himself. The reason it’s also a weakness, however minor, is that Montgomery seems to have spent a good deal of time reading dime detective novels during the writing of this book. He actually uses the phrase “Ah, but we know…” once, and lapses into similar sensationalisms at various other points. It’s a minor point when held against the grater good of the book itself, certainly.
Montgomery gives us readable history we haven’t seen before. Hopefully, it will be another nail in the coffin of the myth of dry history. ***